Industry Lessons: Perfectionism in Professional Sports and Public Safety Professions

The discussion of perfectionism this month is not just limited to personal traits displayed at home. Perfectionism has broad impacts in professional settings as well. Two such industries are professional sports and occupations involving life and death decisions, such as law enforcement and the military. The results of extensive research in these areas suggest that even in the professional context, perfectionism has to be closely monitored and, if left out of control, can have damaging effects.

Professional Sports

Army-Navy Basketball Game. Image from the Wikimedia Commons.

There is probably no industry more concerned with perfectionism than professional sports. Athletes have to maintain an extraordinary level of achievement and their physical performance is often linked to significant monetary impacts for themselves, their teams and their sponsors.

A whole field of sports psychology that is devoted to exploring what motivates professional athletes to excel in their respective sports. While there are many studies of perfectionism in sports, one key study by a team of European researchers (Oliver Stoll, Andreas Lau and Joachim Stoeber), found that perfectionism in sports has benefits.

[A]thletes with both high levels of striving for perfection and high levels of negative reactions to imperfection showed the greatest performance increments over the series of trials.

The findings suggest that perfectionism is not necessarily a maladaptive characteristic that generally undermines sport performance. Instead, when learning a new training task, perfectionism may enhance performance and lead to performance increments over repeated trials.

–Abstract, “Perfectionism and performance in a new basketball training task: Does striving for perfection enhance or undermine performance?,” Oliver Stoll, Andreas Lau and Joachim Stoeber

Based on this type of research, you might expect trainers and coaches to start developing a breed of uber-perfectionist athletes, satisfied with nothing less than perfect performances. However, you may be surprised to learn that almost no one takes this view. Experience has shown many coaches and trainers that perfectionism has its limits. For a few perspectives in this area from a variety of sports, see below.

There are some advantages of perfectionism such as having a strong work ethic, commitment to your goals, and a willingness to learn and improve, which often disguise this mental roadblock to success. It can also help you achieve a few goals quicker.

However, I find that perfectionism presents more disadvantages than advantages when you enter into competition.

–Lai Yin, “Don’t let Perfectionism in Golf be your Mental Trap,” Mind Your Golf Blog

With the expectations of perfection a runner will train harder and longer, both of which are fantastic, but there will come a point of greatly diminishing returns. Overtraining can set in and chronic fatigue, both mental and physical, leads to lower levels of performance and a reduced capacity to train. How does the perfectionist respond to the fatigue and poor performance? He or she reverts to what gave them success in the first place, that being train more and train harder. Rest is not an option because rest means you are not working toward getting better, and for the perfectionist, that can lead to a high level guilt.

The running perfectionist will tend to blame themselves personally for every poor workout, every poor race and every sluggish recovery run. At some point the running perfectionist begins to tie their self-image and self-worth to their running. As result, poor performance equates to the perfectionist being a poor person, at least in their mind. Because their self-concept is so closely tied to running they begin to have high levels of fear of failure.

Even when the running perfectionist does run well, they don’t really enjoy it. Nothing is ever good enough and there doesn’t seem to be any level of satisfaction. The perfectionist must do even better. The pressure of perfectionism robs the runner of enjoyment from running and makes them feel miserable no matter how their running is going.

–RunOhio, “Perfectionism: A Recipe for Disaster

In my own bodybuilding career, my aim has changed from a perfectionistic, Lombardi-inspired “winning is everything” attitude to “competing against myself.” My goal is no longer first place. I don’t care who I beat or who I lose to. I really don’t even care if I get a trophy anymore. My goal is to be better than I used to be. Every time I step onstage, if I look the best I have ever looked, then I’ll feel like a winner no matter where I place.

–Lori Braun, “Quest for Perfection. Desirable or Unattainable?” FemaleMuscle

Roger Federer was an obsessive perfectionist when he was younger and often “self-destructed” during matches. His biography, The Quest for Perfection, explains how Roger’s game suffered from his constant desire to hit perfect shots, and how he later changed his way of thinking to focus on more realistic expectations.

–Tomas Mecinger, “Perfectionism in Tennis,” TennisMindGame

One bodybuilding coach even advises taking individual personality traits into account when designing a training program. For perfectionists, the following training methods are advised:

  • Design a program that emphasizes small, achievable, attainable, goals. Encourage contentment upon completion of these smaller goals. The perfectionist individual should be happy with what they have achieved, not unhappy with what they have not.
  • Encourage team sport, to teach the value of teamwork to absorb the stresses associated with perfectionism.
  • Factor in relaxation techniques such as meditation and visualization.

–David Robson, “How Your Personality Affects Your Training,”

Being a good coach, trainer or athlete therefore requires one to strive for enough perfection to improve skills but not so much as to impede performance through fear of failure, overtraining and lack of rest.

Public Safety Professions

Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officers. Image from the Wikimedia Commons

Other industries concerned with perfectionism are the public safety professions, particularly law enforcement and military organizations. How does perfectionism manifest in these professions? In public safety professions, there is a bright line test for success and failure, i.e. life and death. The consequences of failure are permanent and emotionally fraught. Therefore, avoiding failure is essential for self-preservation, team or unit preservation and achievement of your professional obligations. It is not hard to see why perfectionism is a problem in these professions.

Dr. J.R. Slosar who has studied perfectionism in law enforcement officers provides the following additional insights into the problem.

Police officers are expected to be in control and can develop a constant need to be in control. . .

Socially prescribed perfectionism, involving high and unrealistic standards from others can be inherent in law enforcement work. . . .

Another aspect of perfectionism that develops from feelings of intense self-scrutiny and high standards and expectations is an attitude of competition. The competition is a result of intense self-criticism and criticism of others, often not overtly expressed or seen, and channeled instead into competition. An important question is if law enforcement training breeds and fosters competition in trainees and then reinforces an aspect of perfectionism. Through competition, the intensity of perfectionism and over-achievement is heightened, resulting in some trainees who become “rising stars” by winning the competition battle. Placed on a pedestal as a winner, an experience of failure can literally lead to a dramatic fall and demise.

–J.R. Slosar, Ph.D., “The Role of Perfectionism in Law Enforcement Suicide,” Presentation to the FBI Symposium, September 23, 1999. In: Law Enforcement & Suicide, ed. By Sheehan & Warren, FBI Academy, Behavioral Sciences Unit, Quantico, VA., 2002, p. 539-49. Dr. Slosar is also author of the recently published book, The Culture of Excess.

Apparently, the pressure to be perfect is so intense among law enforcement officers that any experience of failure can trigger suicidal tendencies! Dr. Slosar suggests that the demands of the profession may require that law enforcement candidates be screened for perfectionist tendencies on application to the profession.

Taking a perspective from the outside looking in, law enforcement can . . . prescreen for perfectionism and attempt to screen out or re-interview persons who bring a high perfectionism factor to the job. Certainly bringing perfectionism to the demanding job environment puts one at greater risk for suicidal behavior in the future.

–J.R. Slosar, Ph.D., “The Role of Perfectionism in Law Enforcement Suicide,” Presentation to the FBI Symposium, September 23, 1999.

It should be hardly surprising that a culture of perfectionism also permeates our nation’s military forces. As author Mary Edwards Wertsch writes in Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress:

[T]he authoritarian military requires perfection of its members–in part as evidence of total compliance to the demands of authority– and the individual careerist reinforces this programming with personal ambition. The combination makes for extremely powerful conditioning.

–Mary Edwards Wertsch, “Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress

So again, we see in public safety professions that there is a limit to the benefits of perfectionism. Perfectionism motivates high standards of physical fitness and achievement and helps diverse groups cohere. Too much, however, results in severe personal disappointment with the occurrence of any type of failure, to the point of suicidal tendencies and self-harm.

Learning from Athletes and Public Safety Professionals

What lessons can you learn from the above discussion?

  1. If you are in a situation where perfectionism is required, do your best to encourage team rather than individual efforts to share the burden of perfectionism and give yourself adequate time for rest and relaxation.
  2. Prepare for inevitable failures. Know what to do to mitigate damage and how to recover mentally and physically.
  3. If you struggle with keeping your perfectionism in the healthy range, be very careful of putting yourself or loved ones in situations where perfectionism is prized. The mental strain can be too much. Professions or situations where individuality is prized over standardization may be a better fit.

Are you in a profession that values perfectionism? Please share in the comments.